Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thinking about top teams

I was really excited for this season. Adam Oates was preaching a style I liked, and I thought it would be a good fit for this team with its good D corps. Green, Alzner, Carlson, Orlov, and Hamrlik are all capable of passing the puck, which is really important in a high-pressure system--get the puck to the forwards as quickly as possible.

But Orlov has been hurt, Hamrlik a healthy scratch, and Green gets hurt every couple of days, it seems. The D isn't a strength, and the forwards certainly aren't. The roster clearly needs some changes.

Looking at the teams that have been consistently near the top of the standings, I feel like loading up on forwards is the way to go.

Look at Pittsburgh. They had the three center model, now two centers and a wing. They supported them with nice role players--Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, etc. Their possession game is all about getting the puck out of their zone and up the ice as quickly as possible.

Look at Chicago. That team, since its Cup run, has still been very, very good. (The 2010 team was ridiculous.) The Hawks are built around Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa up front, and Keith and Seabrook on the blueline. Sure, there are other guys in there, too--the speedy Stalberg, Bolland who is sometimes a Malhotra-lite (lots of defensive faceoffs and tough matchups), and some nice young players for depth. But it's still a team built around its star power--a dynamic duo on the first and second lines, and one D that can carry a weaker partner on each of the top two pairs.

Look at Detroit. Lidstrom was their only, truly, great two-way D for a few years. But he could take the tough matchups, and both Datsyuk and Zetterberg can each carry a line. Up front, Filppula, Franzen, and a few others provided some nice support. This team cycles really well, reducing the burden on its D.

Look at Boston. Chara is a great D, Seidenberg is solid, but the rest of their blueline is mediocre-to-bad. But up front, the Bruins are two top lines deep: Lucic-Krejci-Horton and Seguin-Bergeron-Marchand. And Bergeron can handle the tough matchups, meaning easy jobs for the rest of Boston's forwards.

Look at Los Angeles. Kopitar, Brown, and Williams make a good power-versus-power top line, Richards and Carter can be top liners on other teams, and so on. Their D, meanwhile, is good, but really, the standout is Doughty. The rest of the top four--Scuderi, Voynov, Mitchell, perhaps--are 2nd pair guys who have had to move up. Not like Vancouver, which is four top pair D deep.

And the team that LA beat to win the Cup, New Jersey, doesn't exactly have a great blueline either. Zidlicky, Greene, Fayne, Volchenkov, Salvador, and company aren't exactly big names. But they all have their skillsets and they're competent. Throw in the Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk line and the veteran Elias anchoring the second, along with some nice depth players, and you've got a team that, again, is build around forwards with competent, but not outstanding, personnel on the blueline.

To be sure, there are counterexamples. Tampa Bay had a strong top six and crappy D last year and was awful. (Although, considering their blueline is much better this year while the team is not, I'd say issues are more systemic than roster-related.) Philadelphia has been falling off as Timonen ages, Carle left, and Pronger has been out, despite great forward depth. The aforementioned Canucks have great depth at every position thanks to good cap management and coaches and management being on the same page.

But I think in short, the easiest, most reliable way to construct a great possession team--which the Caps haven't been since 08-09, and they haven't even been good since the early part of 11-12, either--is through some star power up front. That will probably require some big trades (e.g. M. Richards, Carter, Neal, Horton) or free agent signings (Hossa) but it can be done.

Round out the blueline with decent defensemen that fit the system, making sure that there's at least one unit that can beat the other team's top line--with Ryan O'Reilly off the market for the next year, this is where Paul Stastny could come in handy, playing with Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson--and you should have what Leonsis planned when he signed Ovechkin to the monster contract: a team that is very good every year, and occasionally elite.

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